Alone in Germany, thousands of people are currently waiting for a donor organ. Not everyone can be helped directly. For patients on lists, this means waiting and hoping. Every day an average of three people die without a suitable organ being found. Many researchers therefore place their hopes on tissue engineering – the artificial production of replacement organs with 3D printers.
Breast cartilage, urinary bladder and skin lobes are already produced and implanted using the usual tissue engineering procedures. Even the successful transplantation of a tract of artificial fibers, which was overlaid with blood stem cells from the bone marrow, recently succeeded in surgeries. In contrast to the organ transplantation from man to man, rejection reactions are avoided with the organs made with usual engineering procedures. By discovering new methods such as three-dimensional (3D) printing, researchers are hoping for new possibilities in artificial tissue engineering.
First steps with 3D printing
- Drinking cups
- Car parts
- Screws and nuts
- Biscuits and chips
Nowadays almost everything can be produced with 3D printing technology, from real plastic products to even food. The process, that is about to revolutionize the usual industrial production processes, produces complete artificial organs from stem cells or tissue precursor cells for surgery purposes. Scientists from the University of Oxford have taken first step towards this possibility. The researchers have already produced a kind of synthetic tissue that, like nerve cells, can conduct electrical signals and perform muscular contractions.
Using living material to reach goals
With a 3D printer, different materials and cells can be precisely positioned. Researchers from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem have created a particularly resistant cartilage tissue. They printed fine polymer filaments and cartilage cells alternately. These artificial tissues were implanted in mice. After eight weeks, it had put up characteristics of a natural cartilage. Considering the fact that in Germany several hundred cartilages must be transplanted annually, this appears to be nothing special. However, the artificial tissue that has been transplanted so far has a disadvantage: it is not as stable as the original. Thanks to the polymer filaments, it is now possible to produce a fabric, which has similar mechanical properties and load capacity as a true cartilage.
Another success with 3D printing
Another reason for the use of 3D printers is that exact images of body parts can be made. For example, American scientists from the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York produced a complete ear made of real tissue. They first constructed a 3D scan of a real ear. This served as a template for the printer to produce a three-dimensional, hollow ear made of plastic. This form was filled with cartilage cells and collagen. After several processing steps an artificial ear emerged, which was hardly distinguishable from a real one. The ear has yet only been transplanted successfully to rats so far. Thus, the researchers hope to use this method to help children born without auricle.
Future goals of 3D printing
Thanks to the ability to conduct electrical stimuli and produce outer organs like an ear, the artificial tissue could be used as a revolution for medicines. The lifesavers would be made at the “push of a button”. Another application is obvious: doctors could one day selectively print nerve tissue or muscle strands in any shape and prepare them in a suitable environment for transplantation by using stem cells. Printing entire organs is one of the research objectives for the future.
3D printing is a very promising way to get perfectly shaped and fitted replacement organs to waiting, suffering or even dying patients that quickly need help. With all losses of body parts imaginable, these special printers, affordable to big hospitals, can print all possible organs, tissues, skins or limbs needed to save a life or make sick people happy again.